I first met doubt around the time I turned 12 years old, in 1994, while at home in Crown Heights — the central address of Chabad. At the time, a group of men in their early-to-mid-20s — some of them recent Chabad dropouts, others toying with the possibility of leaving — would occasionally congregate in my home to schmooze with my father, an expert on Chabad philosophy who was known in the community for his voracious, eclectic reading appetite. I remember those men, their beards shorn, their hair long, who spoke freely of a world beyond faith, of discovering alternate ways of understanding the universe, and their own place within it at secular institutions of higher learning.
Or, perhaps, I first met doubt on a Sunday morning in June of the same year, when I learned that the Rebbe had died and I shuddered in disbelief. I was a Lubavitch preteen trying to make sense of my world, and my encounter with doubt may have been, on some fundamental level, an encounter with the self, a critical juncture in my own coming-of-age narrative.
By the time I recognized doubt for what it was — a feeling of uncertainty, a lack of conviction, as defined by the Oxford dictionary — there was no return to the kind of religious belief I’d been raised on. Moses Isserles, a 16th-century sage known as Rema, as well as other sages teach that “there is no greater joy than the elimination of doubt.” But for me, it wasn’t so much the question of whether God exists or not that wreaked havoc with my mind, as what those ideas — God, existence — even meant. Even so, I continued to go through the motions, adhering to the minutiae of religious rites and rituals because they gave me something concrete to hold onto in the absence of faith. And there were family obligations to be attended to and expectations to be met, and a whole host of reasons why, as I’d tell myself, my doubts had to stay submerged.
In retrospect, I may have been exercising a suspension of disbelief in order to save face in the only world I knew. But that suspension — which works in fiction — could not be sustained in real life. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, I began to feel the weight of my own self-censorship in ways that were interfering with my ability to live and thrive. Perhaps my fear of uncertainty — about the possibility of divine truth — was itself a symptom of doubt. I wondered whether my feelings of doubt didn’t point to some deficiency. Was I lacking self-restraint or an important sense of reverence for those who were older, wiser, and more pious than I?
Years later, I had a conversation about uncertainty with the writer and Torah commentator Avivah Zornberg. We questioned how anyone could be sure of anything in our uncertain world. Why do some people possess such confidence about themselves and their perceptions of reality and spirituality — a confidence that allows for certainty — while the rest of us struggle?
Some days, I wish I could reclaim the faith that was my inheritance. At times, I feel pangs of sadness about the looming void in my life — and the recognition that I have no particular truth or set of truths to transmit to my children. If fundamentalism is the dark side of faith, doubt can lead to its own darkness; the emptiness engendered by not knowing is sometimes overwhelming.
Though faith may provide answers, doubt has allowed me a depth of perception that is empowering even when it is terrifying. For me, to live with doubt, or in doubt, is to live without any single truth but, ideally, in pursuit of a multiplicity of truths. The notion of free choice within the traditional framework always struck me as somewhat disingenuous: A choice between good and bad, between right and wrong, is not really a choice. Now that I don’t have that kind of absolute moral compass guiding me, the choices are endless; they are also, finally, my own.email print